'Slumdog Millionaire' Tells Of Horrific Life For Kids

The film Slumdog Millionaire has received a whopping 10 Oscar nominations, but the movie is being heralded as more than just a cinematic gem. It also draws attention to harrowing conditions for children in the slums of Mumbai, India. Maya Ajmera, of the Global Fund for Children, and children's advocate Priti Patkar, of Prerana, talks more about Mumbai's slums.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, our Oscar preview. We'll help you decide for the ins and outs of this Sunday's Oscar broadcast in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to continue our international briefing with a conversation about some of the issues raised by the global hit film "Slumdog Millionaire." It's one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year. It scored four Golden Globes last month and has been nominated for 10 Oscars at Sunday's awards.

But the film has also raised hackles(ph) and sparked some intense debate because of its exceptionally vivid portrayal of life in the slums of Mumbai, India. It touches on child sex trafficking, police corruption and brutality, and the awful conditions faced by many children and families. And the movie has prompted some intense conversations, one of which we had on this program, about whether the filmmakers should have done more or should be doing more about the conditions they so vividly described.

But we decided to find out what is already being done to help the kids living the life "Slumdog" showed in the movies. We're asking, after "Slumdog," now what?

Joining us to talk about this is Maya Ajmera - she's the president and the founder of the Global Fund for Children; and Priti Patkar, who founded Prerana. It's an organization that helps children growing up in India's red light districts. And I welcome you both. Thank you for speaking with us.

Ms. MAYA AJMERA (President and Founder, Global Fund for Children): Thanks for having us.

Ms. PRITI PATKAR (Co-Founder, Prerana): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: And Maya, let me start with you. I know you saw the film, "Slumdog Millionaire." And there are those who are saying, this is an exaggeration, you know, this is a fantasy. But you know India very well. You've worked overseas quite a lot. Are there accurate depictions of the lives some kids lead in this movie?

Ms. AJMERA: Absolutely, and they lead very gritty lives. I think the depictions of their life was very accurate, and the issues that were touched on in the movie - from the small, non-formal classroom to children working on the garbage dumps to Latika, who was Jamal's sweetheart who was dancing in the red light district - you know, that all was so vivid because it came back to the important work that many of our partners at the grassroots do for these children.

MARTIN: Priti, I want to come to you because you work with children who grew up in (unintelligible) in India, who work in and around the red light district. So I just want to - before we come to you, I want to play a short scene from the film where the two young brothers, who are the stars of the film, they go to the red light district. They're trying to rescue this young lady that Maya talked about, Latika, who was also an orphan, and she's being trained to become a prostitute, and they come face-to-face with this person who posed as a child services worker who they'd escaped from and who's kidnapped their friend, and I want to play a short clip of that scene.

(Soundbite of movie "Slumdog Millionaire")

Unidentified Actor: Hello again, Jamal. Salim. Never forget a face. (Unintelligible) Especially one that I own. You really thought you could just walk in and take my prize away? Latika, come. Have you any idea how much this little virgin is worth?

MARTIN: Priti, can I ask about that? How much is a virgin worth? What is the situation there?

Ms. PATKAR: Oh, there's a lot of money to be made, and it's really difficult every time you try and educate a girl child. Once she's 12 and 13, there are people just waiting to get her out of school and begin the training that you saw in the film, that Latika was being trained as a dancer, and that's exactly what the perpetrators of the sex trade would want to do.

But our intervention from day one was trying to involve the mothers in developing and planning the future of her child, and what we've really seen in these last 22 years is that not a single prostitute wants her daughter to end up in a situation that she ended up in.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning in, we're talking about after "Slumdog," now what? And we're talking about organizations that are trying to address the conditions depicted in the film "Slumdog Millionaire."..TEXT: Maya, tell me more, if you would, about some of the other groups that you work with, particularly in India. Your organization works with organizations around the world, but some of the other organizations that address some of the specific issues raised by "Slumdog Millionaire."

Ms. AJMERA: You know, we've had the privilege of supporting Prerana for many years of their work in the red light district, and so when the image of Latika dancing in the brothel, I just thought of Prerana immediately.

But there are other scenes in the movie that brought up several of the important work of our partners in India. There's a scene where Jamal and Salim are on the train platforms and living on the trains, and there's a wonderful group in Bhubaneshwar called Ruchicka that works with children who live and work on the trains and who are abandoned and give them a life and an education.

There's - in the opening moments of the film, the boys, if you remember, the boys are hustled to school by their mother after fleeing from the police. That little, non-formal classroom brought an image of an NGO partner in Mumbai, the Door Step School, that creates non-formal schools right in the slum areas where children don't have to go far but are getting a very good education.

MARTIN: And the point I want make here, Maya, is that you have already done your due diligence about these programs. Your organization knows they exist. There is a process to be sure that the money is going where it's supposed to go and that you can attest to the fact that these programs are already up and running and...

Ms. AJMERA: That's right. And doing excellent work.

MARTIN: And doing the kind of work that needs to be done to work on these conditions. Priti, may I ask you, what would help you in your work? I know that Maya's organization has been helpful and that your organization began long before Maya came on the scene, and I know that her group, which was founded in 1994 and Prerana was founded in 1986, so you were working before Maya came on. But what are some of the other things that would help a group like yours?

Ms. PATKAR: Well, what clearly continues to help us is what people like Maya and Global Fund for Children are doing, is having faith and trust in change, having faith and trust in these children, and having this understanding that these children have rights, and one should not all the time ask for guarantees from underprivileged children.

You know, what we really appreciate is that people feel these children are there now and their rights have to be ensured now. Don't all the time keep asking for future guarantees. I mean, none of us know about what's going to happen to any children once they grow up. But we need to invest now, and automatically we'll see the results later. You know, this is the kind of support and faith and trust that we're expecting people to have in these children.

MARTIN: And Priti, finally, can I ask you, did you see this film, "Slumdog Millionaire?"

Ms. PATKAR: Oh, yes, of course. Of course.

MARTIN: Some people are annoyed because they feel that it puts India in a bad light, and I just wondered if you felt that the film in the end, was it useful in showing the kinds of things that you are trying to address or did it bother you?

Ms. PATKAR: Well, these are things that you cannot really hide. They're so obvious. I mean, it's sad that some movie that brought these issues out, but you walk down many streets of Mumbai and other cities in India and you can see it. You have to be totally indifferent, insensitive and blind not to see these things happening. And I feel instead of getting defensive, it's better we say it's happening and do something about it.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. Maya, final question to you. If people say, look, I saw this movie, I'm horrified, what can I do - what's the answer?

Ms. AJMERA: Well, I think what they need to do is be able to find ways to be able to support NGOs like Prerana and others that are working on these issues in Mumbai, in India and throughout the world. The Global Fund for Children is a good place for that. There are also other organizations doing excellent work, and small amounts of money can do big, big things. And that's what's extraordinary about grassroots solutions is that it doesn't take a lot. What it needs is trust and faith, small dose of support, and investments in individuals like Priti Patkar of Prerana.

MARTIN: Maya Ajmera is the president and founder of the Global Fund for Children. She was kind of enough to join us from the BBC Studios in London. We were also joined by Priti Patkar. She is the co-founder of Prerana. It's an organization that helps children growing up in India's red light district. And we will have more information about both of their organizations on our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. Ladies, thank you so much for talking to us today.

Ms. AJMERA: Thank you.

Ms. PATKAR: Thank you.

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